Edward Wilson (1872-1912) accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on both his celebrated Antarctic voyages: the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1914 and the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913. Wilson served as Junior Surgeon and Zoologist on Discovery and, on this expedition, with Scott and Ernest Shackleton he set a new Furthest South on 30 December 1902. he was Chief of Scientific Staff on the Terra Nova Expedition and reached the South Pole with Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry Robertson Bowers and Edgar Evans on 18 january 1912, arriving there four weeks after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Wilson and his four companions died on the return journey. Trained as a physician, Wilson was also a skilled artist. His drawings and paintings lavishly illustrated both expeditions. He was the last major exploration artist; technological developments in the filed of photography were soon to make cameras practical as a way of recording journeys into the unknown. This biography, the first full account of the Antarctic hero, traces his life from childhood to his tragic death.
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With Scott in the Antarctic
Edward Wilson: Explorer, Naturalist, Artist
By Isobel Williams
The History PressCopyright © 2009 Isobel Williams
All rights reserved.
Men of Edward Wilson's family were explorers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, naturalists and soldiers; the family had a strong religious framework. For Victorians the family was both a refuge and the hub of their social life and Edward Adrian (Ted to his family) was part of a large and interconnected family. He was born on 23 July 1872, the fifth child and second son of Edward Thomas Wilson (1832–1918) and his wife Mary Agnes (1841–1930). His father was a doctor, a medical practitioner, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and Wilson was eventually to be followed by five younger siblings. He was born at a time when Great Britain was the hegemonic power of the world. Its citizens, in a way difficult to recognise in our multicultural age, were (in the main) proud that Englishmen were the undisputed rulers of millions. They did not question, and certainly felt no reason to apologise for, Britannia's right to rule the waves, believing that God had ordained the Empire for the benefit of the world. Every schoolroom would have a map that showed that approximately 30 per cent of the world was coloured pink, the extent of 'The Empire'. Children of the Empire, such as the Wilsons, born into middle-class households, were taught the importance of serving God, Queen and Country. They were proud to be British, and excited by the idea of serving the Empire.
Wilson was born in No.6 Montpellier Terrace. The house is still lived in, though the number changed. It is a good-sized house of four storeys and has sizeable rooms on the ground and first floor. When Wilson was born there was a nursery on the top floor, space for five live-in servants and a large kitchen in the basement. Nevertheless the household must have been fairly chaotic. Birth control was known but rarely practised and Wilson's mother already had children of three, two, one and 'under two months' at the time of the 1871 census. The duty of married Victorian women, however educated, was to produce children and Mary Agnes did her bit. By the time of the next census in 1881 Mrs Wilson had eight children: thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, eight (Wilson), five, two and a baby aged 'less than two months'. Already one daughter had died.
Wilson had had the conventional upbringing typical of thousands of children in England in the 1870s with one very important exception. At a time when children were often over disciplined, over controlled and physically punished, his parents were caring and supportive, intelligently committed to promoting their children's health and happiness. They had the vision to allow their son unlimited freedom to explore the local countryside, to draw and to paint. Life was not boring. He had a happy childhood.
Cheltenham is an ancient town. It is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Medicinal spring waters, which brought prosperity to the town, were discovered in the early 1700s. Visitors paid to take the waters (and visit the small assembly room nearby for billiards and cards), which were claimed as something of a 'cure all' particularly for digestive problems. They certainly acted as a laxative. The Wilson children would have thrilled to the names of the famous who had visited their town: Handel, Samuel Johnson and even King George III. They would have been proud that the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo, had tried the cure, as had members of the exiled French Royal Family. These important visitors would have seen gentlemen's clubs, tea dances, hunt balls, garden parties and concerts. They would not have seen the backdrop of poverty, the struggle for survival, the appalling living conditions endured by the poor of a town that, like many others, had a huge divide between rich and poor. But Dr. Wilson, the children's father, would have seen it all. In his work as a general practitioner, he visited and helped patients in all walks of life.
Wilson's parents had interesting ancestors. Dr Edward Thomas Wilson was descended from a family of rich Quaker industrialists. Wilson's great grandfather (1772–1843), another Edward Wilson, of Philadelphia and Liverpool, was a hugely successful businessman who made fortunes from both American real estate and railway development and was a friend of George Stephenson who built 'The Rocket', the prototype for steam engines. The War of Independence resulted in Americans claiming much property owned by the English, so this Wilson was remarkable in that he successfully recovered his estates. He returned to England with his wife, Elizabeth Bellerby, and lived in Liverpool until his death. His children inherited fortunes and wrote 'Gentleman' as their occupation after their names. This was an important distinction that showed that they did not need to work for a living. His second son was Wilson's grandfather who, in 1861, was appointed High Sheriff of Pembrokeshire by Queen Victoria. He was a keen and knowledgeable ornithologist; part of his collection became assimilated into the British Museum's collection. Unfortunately, a series of poor investments meant that his children, although well-off, were not as privileged as their father and did have to earn their living. This they did to some effect. Wilson's father, Edward Thomas, the eldest son, studied medicine at Oxford, St George's Hospital London and Paris. He qualified in 1858 and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1870. One of Edward Thomas' brothers was the soldier and explorer Major General Sir Charles Wilson, who in 1865 conducted the first survey of Palestine and in 1884 commanded an expedition on the Nile in an unsuccessful attempt to relieve General Charles Gordon (Chinese Gordon), trapped in Khartoum by murderous Sudanese rebels. This expedition, when Wilson was eleven, brought Sir Charles national fame and must have thrilled the family. The Illustrated London News of March 1885 graphically fed readers' appetite for military matters by a series of specially-commissioned illustrations of his expedition.
Doctor Edward Thomas settled in Cheltenham instead of opting for a more lucrative and prestigious practice in London. He worked in Cheltenham General Hospital for over thirty years, initially in the dispensary and then as Physician to the hospital. He was a man of energy and courage and he was determined to help the poor and vulnerable in his hometown. The elegant neo-classical facades concealed many houses in a 'filthy and unwholesome state'; overcrowded (several families in one room) and without drains. Outdoor earth closets or pail closets would have been shared by many people. Drinking water was often infected and illness very common, particularly in summer when the shallow wells that supplied many of the cottages dried up completely. Although busy with his large medical practice Dr Wilson gave time and energy to supporting public health measures to reduce disease. Such developments were often costly and therefore unpopular, but he persevered with innovations such as an Infectious Disease Hospital (to reduce person-to-person spread of infection), the training of district nurses and, most importantly, the provision of clean drinking water. He was a sophisticated and energetic man who passed on many of his interests to his son. He helped to found Cheltenham's Municipal Museum, and opened it in 1907, saying that the museum might be made one of the town's most valuable assets but in order to be this 'it must not stand still'. He was president of the Natural Science Society and, aged 81, spent his summer in the Cotswolds searching for neolithic implements. He was a founding member, with friends, of the local camera club, the sixth oldest in the country.
Wilson's mother, Mary Agnes, too passed on to her son not only her deep religious beliefs, but also her enthusiasm for country matters and an artistic bent; one of her cousins was the Royal Academician, William Yeames, an uncle designed the Tsar's garden. Mary Agnes' family came originally from Cheshire, but her forebears settled as businessmen amongst the expatriate English community in St Petersburg, Russia. It was there that both of Wilson's maternal grandparents lived and there that his mother was born. Her father, Bernhard Whishaw (1779–1868), ran a successful Anglo-Russian trading company. He married Elizabeth Yeames (1796–1879), also from a powerful expatriate English family, and the family was well enough thought of to enjoy the Tsar's patronage. They spent their summers in their dachas and their winters in the city. In 1848 they moved to Cheltenham, probably for economic reasons, bringing their younger daughter Mary Agnes with them. Here she lived for the remainder of her life. Probably unusually for a Cheltenham girl of the time, she travelled extensively to the Continent before and after her marriage and was actually married in St Petersburg in April 1866. Many of her family who stayed in or returned to Russia, visited Cheltenham and the presence of these Russian visitors must have added glamour to the family and caused a frisson of excitement in the town.
This was a solid family, a family of 'doers' and enthusiasts, members of the 'self-reliant and self-development' line of thought. In Wilson's case at least, grafted to these characteristics was an overwhelming conviction of the importance of faith. He and his mother shared a conviction in an all-powerful God at a time when the most entrenched precepts of the Church were being questioned. In the nineteenth century the concept of evolution shook and challenged the Church which taught that the universe was created in six days as described in Genesis. For years debates raged in the Geological Society and the Royal Society of London as new evidence challenged the Church's teaching, which implied that everything, mouse to man and tree to mountain, was created at the same time. Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859 after years of hesitation and anxious study, tormented by the implications of his ideas which claimed that man was not created separately by an act of God but had evolved from lower forms of life over millions of years. Darwin wrote that different species including the human species evolved by random variation and adaptation to their natural environment, a development he called 'natural selection'. For the supporters of the biblical story of creation, the Creationists, this theory had profound implications. Not only was it against the word of the Bible but acceptance of the theory could shake the social and moral foundations of society and even threaten Victorian England's powerful class system, a system that mirrored the hierarchy of the natural world. It implied that men might have evolved from apes, that intelligence and morality were accidents of nature and that man and other new species arose from a series of random events and not from God's will. Darwin feared that he was 'the Devil's chaplain'. Debates were fierce and passionate and have not been resolved to this day. Catholic academics still disagree as to whether or not random evolution is compatible with 'God the Creator'. In 2005 President George Bush said that he thought the theory of 'intelligent design', a version of creationism that disputes the idea that natural selection alone can explain the complexity of life, should be taught in American schools alongside the theory of evolution. In the late 1800s, in a family as cultured, intelligent and interested in science as the Wilsons, arguments for and against would have undoubtedly been rehearsed but there is absolutely no suggestion that an appreciation that organisms can modify and adapt over time ever shook Wilson's belief in an all-powerful God. He incorporated Darwin's theories into his practical beliefs writing that God started life as a simple form, this form altered and developed into its designated role. God was present in everything: stones, trees, human beings and animals.
Wilson's understanding that minor changes in species can be effected in a few generations may have been helped in a simple way by his mother's experiments with hens. Rather unusually for a Victorian housewife and mother, Mary Agnes was an authority on poultry breeding and published The ABC Poultry Book. This book covers a wide range of subjects in alphabetical order. Topics include: 'Accidents, (including loss of birds by rail), Artificial incubation, Chilled eggs, Deformities, Rheumatism, Selling eggs and poultry'. Importantly, she grasped the concept that domestic animals could adapt to develop particular or new characteristics (for example, size or shape) by breeding with animals that already showed those characteristics; conversely, unwanted characteristics could be changed (although squirrel-tail deformity in hens is apparently difficult to breed out). Thus in a small way, in a Cheltenham chicken coop, she was able to demonstrate Darwin's premise to her own and probably her son's satisfaction.
Wilson's mother had hoped for a second son, she already had three daughters. When he was born she wrote, with some partiality, that he was 'the pride of the bunch' and 'the prettiest of her babies'. He had 'deep golden red hair, eyes rather small, a pretty mouth and a lovely colour'. As a small child he was 'bright and jolly, clever and quick'. He achieved his childhood milestones early, by the age of one he could run and climb stairs and was beginning to speak. He was, and remained, deeply attached to his father, 'his love for him is most beautiful'. When he was 2, because of the increasing size of the family and perhaps because of his father's growing reputation as a physician, the family moved to a larger house nearby: Westal on the Montpellier Parade. This was a large house of ten bedrooms, four reception rooms, a nursery, quarters for six house servants, a big garden and a private drive. The children had a (German) governess. This size of establishment would be fairly typical for a successful man of the period. The move was a success from little Ted's point of view. He spent his time in the garden digging, trundling stones around and helping his mother. Westal was to be the family home for the remainder of Wilson's life and he always remembered his years there with affection and happiness.
In his new home, Wilson's artistic ability became obvious at a very early age. He was always drawing, and 'never so happy as when lying full length on the floor and drawing figures of soldiers in every conceivable attitude'. His pictures were full of action and from his imagination; he did not like to copy anything. Soldiers were a favourite subject. They were probably foremost in his mind because of his Uncle Charles' well-publicised explorations. Although his mother gave him drawing lessons, he was never to receive formal tuition. At three he was described as 'a broth of a boy, a regular pickle, open about his faults but tearful and ready to cry on very slight provocation'. At 5 he was drawing incessantly; drawing and painting were to become a daily activity, an addictive necessity to him. Other interests and hobbies of importance in his later life also developed early, particularly a mania for collecting: shells, butterflies and dried flowers and probably many other things. Though 'collecting' was a very general Victorian passion, his collections must have been trying, as one of so many children, but his remarkable parents seem to have encouraged rather than discouraged him and given him a special room for his collections. Other characteristics were more worrying. His childhood temper could be described as cyclical; affectionate and sunny moods could quickly change to violent temper tantrums and screaming fits. His father stopped one of these episodes with a few good slaps which had 'the most beneficial results, he became as good as gold and went to bed calling out, "Dood night, Dod bless you"'. These mood swings were much more marked than in the other children. Perhaps they were provoked by the death of his sister, Jessica Frances, who died in February 1876, aged 16 months when Ted, who was devoted to her and next to her in age, was 3. The cause is recorded as 'Repeated attacks of convulsions'; these lasted for ten days. Childhood convulsions may be due to many things including infection and high temperature. In 1876, Cheltenham had an outbreak of Scarlet Fever (which can cause a high temperature and convulsions). The death certificate does not state the cause of Jessica's convulsion, but it is easy to imagine the effect that the imposed silence, the muffled whispers, the parents' dreadful anticipation and the final bitter outcome would have had on the household and on the psyche of a very young boy. Death was all too common in Victorian nurseries (infant mortality in Cheltenham from 1874 to 1884 was approximately ten times greater than adults) but although he understood that Jessie was going to Heaven, her death nevertheless must have been confusing, incomprehensible and frightening to a child like Ted.
His interest in natural history developed at an early age. At 4 he had a passion for flowers. When he was 9, he decided that he wished to become a naturalist and aged 11 he took lessons in taxidermy from White, 'the bird stuffer'. His first attempt was a robin and he soon became nimble at this time-consuming and fiddly occupation. He always preferred country walks to games, and his collections of fossils, butterflies and feathers, and his aquarium, to lessons. His mother described him as 'a nice looking, curly headed boy, very affectionate but decidedly slack at school work'. Early school was with his elder brother Bernard, and his teachers thought him clever, though his mother worried that he was 'untidy, often idle, with returned lessons of which he was not ashamed'. It is easy to see why his attention strayed; the subjects taught were daunting, and by the age of 10 he was having lessons in Latin, arithmetic, English, reading, spelling and Greek. However, an ambition to do well was slowly asserting itself and he did work at school, so successfully that it was suggested that he might pass a public school scholarship (which would have helped his parents with the fees) if he was given extra tuition. As happens today, his parents paid for this extra tuition and he was sent to a boarding school in Clifton, Bristol in 1884. The school was small, about twelve pupils, and here he met an imaginative, enthusiastic and tolerant tutor, Erasmus Wilkinson, who created an environment that suited Wilson well – he was taken seriously and high standards were set. This proved the right method for a fairly turbulent boy and he responded well. He became so anxious to learn that he sat with 'his back to his favourite beasties (the newts, frogs and mice which were allowed remarkably into the school room) which would distract him'. Equally importantly he began to lay foundations for his future development, learning to value accurate and careful records, and beginning to develop the habit of critical assessment. These were skills that were to become important in his medical work and in his expeditions to the Antarctic. During his time at Clifton he developed and matured. His rages and furies became rarer. Aged 12, he began to think about the meaning of life and 'The Truth'; subjects that would absorb him and infiltrate his entire life. He started to try to relate his ideas for self-improvement into his day-to-day behaviour, wisely keeping these ideas and rules to himself. In his reports the schoolmasters commented only on his good sportsmanship and excellent manners. He tried for a public school scholarship at Charterhouse and Marlborough schools, but failed, having, his father writes, 'been badly grounded in the classics', but he valued the years spent at the preparatory school because he felt that he had been educated in the broadest sense of the word.
Excerpted from With Scott in the Antarctic by Isobel Williams. Copyright © 2009 Isobel Williams. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction by Dr Michael Stroud,
1 Early Years,
3 Edward Wilson, M.B.,
4 Antarctic Recruit,
5 England to Madeira,
6 To the Polar Ice,
7 Entering Antarctica,
8 Furthest South,
9 Paintings and Penguins,
10 The Grouse Challenge,
11 Terra Nova,
12 The Winter Journey,
13 Death in the Antarctic,
Notes on Sources,